Philadelphia City Council’s insistence on playing an oversized role in neighborhood redevelopment threatens to drown Mayor Kenney’s plan to rebuild parks, libraries, and recreation centers in cronyism and patronage.
Ignoring the fact that it is a legislative body, Council has inappropriately inserted itself into the administration’s role to control a $500 million transformation of aging structures into facilities that can enhance the quality of life in city neighborhoods. District Council members will now get final say on which sites get refurbished.
Council members objected to Kenney’s initial proposal to have two reputable nonprofits, the Fairmount Park Conservancy and the Free Library Foundation, administer the program known as Rebuild, saying the idea didn’t guarantee enough transparency. They had a point. Allowing nongovernment agencies to play government roles risks distancing the public from its business.
But Council didn’t solve that problem by getting Kenney to back down and let it hand-pick smaller nonprofits to be project managers, which will give them a cut of administrative fees and other bonuses, not to mention the ability to hire staff.
Before that happens, there must be assurances that the nonprofits’ books will be open to the public on demand. Any agency using questionable fiscal practices must be deemed unfit to manage taxpayer money. Perhaps City Controller Alan Butkovitz can help develop a rigorous auditing process.
The public must be allowed to attend all meetings and bid openings by the nonprofits, check their finances, and have a voice in how money is spent. Any hiring by the nonprofits should follow strict protocols to make sure hacks don’t get hired to do work. The public’s money shouldn’t provide a windfall for politicians’ friends.
This latest overreach by Council is an extension of its antiquated and arrogant tradition known as councilmanic prerogative, which allows district Council members to control the disposition of public land and zoning on their turf. Past abuse of that power sent a couple of Council members to jail. With the FBI known to be studying Council’s behavior of late, its members ought to be extremely careful.
The Kenney administration succumbed to the political realities of a divided government in making a deal with Council to kick-start Rebuild. Kenney needs Council to approve $300 million in bonds to finance much of the work. The administration insists tough quality standards will be enforced. But that will be hard if Council keeps overstepping its authority to set policy as a legislative body and tries to play mayor.
Kenney may live to regret giving in to Council. City residents, bond raters and buyers must fear having to pay a crony tax because he did.